For most breweries, micro or otherwise, the flagship beer is likely to be a pale ale or lager, which has been the case in Ontario for some time. This practice has also been the matter of debate between beer geeks for what feels like eons at this point. I have always made my opinion known – there are plenty of other styles that could be used for a flagship beer that would help differentiate a new brewery from the competition. This is not to knock breweries that have opened with a pale ale or lager, because a good beer is always welcome on the market. But as the market for craft beer in Ontario expands, it is inevitable that the styles regularly available must change as well.
The best place to start is likely an examination of why pale ales and lagers have become so common as flagship beers. From a business perspective, these are beers that will hopefully appeal to the widest swath of beer drinkers. They are also the two styles of beer that drinkers are most familiar with (though that’s a bit of a chicken vs. egg scenario). In terms of brewing, pale ales can have an endless number of permutations in the brewing process. Brewers can impart their own personal tastes using many different hop and malt varieties. They also have the benefit of not being seasonal – a pale ale can taste as nice in the summer as it does in the winter. The alcohol by volume is in the typical 5-6% range, so it’s easy to drink a couple with getting blotto (though hopefully have a healthy buzz).
So what other styles could a brewery use for a flagship? Here are the pros and cons of six different styles that are relatively uncommon in Ontario (or only available on a seasonal basis).
American Wheat. Pros: Hops are all the rage right now and using them in an American-style wheat beer will let you hop the bejeezus out of your beer while working in a different style. Great for the summer patio season. Cons: Not as ideal for the colder months. Having to explain to your average consumer what an American wheat ale and that it is not actually an American beer.
Dunkel. Pros: Only one year-round local example that I can think of (Denison’s), which means competition is small. Great from September to April. Dunkel is fun to say. Cons: Popularity of hoppy beers makes a malt-forward beer riskier. Summer months will be slower. Providing bars with the popular weisse glass will add to costs.
Herb/spice beer. Pros: A truly unique beer! People won’t believe they’re drinking a beer with dandelion/paprika/[insert ingredient of your choice] in it. Cons: Can be a little gimmicky. Will people really want to buy a six-pack of your juniper beer that often? (For the record, I probably would.)
Mild. Pros: I’ve never found a bad month to drink a mild. Low-percentage alcohol for those tired of beers with increasingly higher ABVs and looking for a session beer. Cons: Ontario is heading away from British-style ales right now. Probably a year or two (at least) before they make a comeback. Hard style to nail. Lose out on people who just want to get drunk.
Porter. Pros: As someone pointed out to me, there are few porters available in Ontario on a permanent basis. Eventually malt will be the new hops. Cons: Summer will be a painfully slow season. Stupid people hate anything that’s a “dark beer” (but they’re stupid, so do you really want them drinking your beer?).
Saison. Pros: Appeal to beer geeks and people who claim they just don’t like beer. Great beer for hot months, but can be equally satisfying at any time of the year. Cons: Well… nope, can’t think of any. Saisons are perfect and the first brewery to push a really good saison will have their empty kegs returned with piles of money inside.
For the record, the pros/cons do not reflect any difficulties in making the beer, like fermenting at higher/colder temperatures or sourcing ingredients. Not all are perfect, but it would be fun to see a brewery try to make a flagship that breaks from the formula.